‘Live With The Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony’ by Sons Of Apollo

It’s not every day that a rock band plays a concert with a full-blown symphony.  There was Deep Purple, who played with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969; Metallica, who played with the San Francisco Symphony in 1999; and now Sons Of Apollo, who are set to release Live With The Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony at the end of this month, recorded while they were on tour last year in Bulgaria.  While I know there are others I’m missing, I’m here to speak with you about the last of these epic endeavors.

Recorded on a beautiful September evening before a thrilled Bulgarian audience at Plovdiv’s Roman Amphitheatre, Sons Of Apollo pulled together a special set.  The first part largely mirrored the set list they had been performing throughout the tour, based firmly around their debut album, Psychotic Symphony, which I witnessed and spoke about here.  The second part, joined by the Plovdiv Symphony Orchestra and Choir – lovingly nicknamed the Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony for this night – consisted of a set of cover songs tailored by Portnoy to both the band’s musical tastes, as well as to take full advantage of the symphony’s presence.  More than once I had goosebumps along my neck from how everything fell into place just right.  Running the gamut from Queen to Ozzy Osbourne, there’s a great deal at which to marvel.

 

Being able to not only hear what’s going on, but to see the chemistry and synchronized efforts of this band, really convinces me that getting one of the releases which include the blu-ray or DVD are the way to go.  Being able to see how well Sherinian’s keystrokes fall in line with Sheehan’s tremendously heavy bass notes help me understand how the group were able to create some of the remarkable lows on their debut album.  It’s all the little things that really add up here, such as Soto holding Bumblefoot’s guitar while the latter plays it in lap-steel fashion, or Bumblefoot playing Portnoy’s symbols with the headstock of his guitar, or watching Sherinian perform Van Halen’s “Eruption” guitar solo while making his way around the keyboard – all these little touches really add to the experience.  And the mix is beautifully balanced, allowing each instrument to come across clearly and boldly.

Of course, there is a version which contains the 3-CD collection as well, including a few songs – Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” – that aren’t part of the video releases due to being unable to secure clearance.  While I’ve been typing this, I’ll admit to having gotten lost in their rendition of of the latter.  Portnoy and Soto do a great job alternating vocals duties, Sherinian and Sheehan provide swelling accompaniment alongside the symphony, and Bumblefoot’s guitar solo just goes on and on, building in waves of emotion.  I think this is the seventh time the song has played on repeat.  I would have loved to see their expressions.

Some might find it weird, or even presumptuous, that a band with only one album under its belt would opt for not only a live album as its second release, but one with a symphony orchestra at that.  Perhaps it’s the nature of this band that makes it work so well; five extremely talented individuals, each with a storied history to draw on.  This isn’t their first, or even second, rodeo, and they certainly don’t seem to be slowing down now.  Their original works are inspired and precise, and they have a hell of a lot of fun regardless of the tune they’re playing, to the point that it’s infectious.  I’d highly suggest everyone check this release out; I know I’d already have pre-ordered it if my wife hadn’t wanted gift ideas.

 

To pre-order Live With The Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony in its various formats, click here.

For more on Sons Of Apollo, visit:
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Review: ‘Psychotic Symphony’ by Sons Of Apollo

When I heard that Portnoy, Sherinian, Sheehan, Soto, and Thal were coming together to present us Sons Of Apollo, this is not what I expected.  This is far from a disparaging comment.  It’s simply that, after having experienced a number of these talented individuals’ recent super group collaborations, such as The Winery Dogs and Art Of Anarchy, I envisioned another unique permutation of hard rock.  Even when considering the shared prog rock background of Portnoy and Sherinian, I wasn’t aware of anyone else here exploring that road before.  But ultimately, it wasn’t the style which surprised me, which I always imagined could (and does) contain elements of both; rather, I wasn’t prepared for how ambitious Psychotic Symphony, out October 20, would turn out to be.

This debut LP is book-ended by two immense tracks, both clocking in at 10+ minutes long.  It was evident to me immediately, upon seeing this, that I was about to descend into a garden of ear-ly delights.  Opening with “God Of The Sun,” largely written by Sherinian, we traverse a multi-part epic which skirts Eastern Mediterranean motifs, slamming us with meaty riffs, lifting us to the sky with heavenly synths, and gliding us along on the wings of Soto’s vocal melodies.  Moving on to the second track: “Coming Home” is a truly rockin’ number with great vocal harmonies and basslines that carve out valleys wherever they travel, courtesy Sheehan’s double neck Yamaha.  It also features a bridge section which feels like it’s taking a number right out of The Who’s playbook.   By the time we arrive at track three, “Sign Of The Times,” you might feel like you need to catch your breath, yet it features the heaviest riffs I’ve ever heard come out of Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal’s guitar, and a solo segment that serves as one of the only moments where I might confuse this band for Portnoy and Sherinian’s old stomping grounds, Dream Theater.  Frankly, the difficulty in reviewing this album stems from my inability to skip any tune without feeling I’ve done it a disservice.  Even harder to stop here, considering that the next track, “Labyrinth,” is a nine-minute behemoth, and one of my favorites.

No one doubts the virtuosity of these five men.  But to take five seasoned music veterans and put them together, expecting a synergistic surprise, may simply result in disappointment for the listener.  In this case, however, I’m extremely happy to say that these fellas have truly produced greater than the sum of their parts.  And that is the ambition I mentioned earlier.  One need only listen to Psychotic Symphony to realize it is a truly unique and provocative experience, created with such thought and care that it’s obvious all involved consider Sons Of Apollo to be more than simply a pit-stop on the road of their musical careers.  This is a band, and I can only hope it chooses to stick around long enough to grace us with another release.

 
Order Psychotic Symphony.

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CD Review: ‘The Similitude Of A Dream’ by The Neal Morse Band

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It’s been a long day.  A very long day.  But luckily, The Neal Morse Band’s newest release, an immense double-LP concept album, The Similitude Of A Dream, is the perfect companion.  I have been glued to this album for two weeks straight, and I can assure you that this piece of work is nothing short of breathtaking.  The foundation of the story is John Bunyan’s 1678 The Pilgrim’s Progress (specifically Part 1), with a little artistic license thrown in, and it’s beautifully done.  One might expect that telling such an old story would come across feeling anachronistic, and that we might not be able to connect with the material.  But Morse, along with Mike Portnoy [drums], Randy George [bass], Bill Hubauer [keys], and Eric Gillette [guitar], have modernized and made mesmerizing what many might find to be a dated, historical Christian narrative.

I can sense some of you turning off right about now.  Did I say that this album is a Christian narrative?  Yes, I did.  But before you turn away, let me say that you certainly don’t have to be a Christian, or even religious, to enjoy what these fellows have created.  Similitude is such an organic release that it carries you along effortlessly.  This is a tale, more than anything else, of a man who is moved to live his life in a way that others don’t understand.  His desire and goals scare those around him, simply because he doesn’t fit their way of life, and he is constantly impeded by those who would rather see him let his dreams slip away.  I think we can all empathize with the Journeyman, as we’ve likely met resistance at least once in our lives when reaching for our dreams.

 

Perhaps there are those of you who are more in the loop than I am.  I will shamefully admit that this is my first foray into the world of Neal Morse.  But what a foray it has been!  It was immediately clear that I was listening to a collection of masters.  Each member of this ensemble is here for reasons quickly evident, most of which are made known by the second track!  But there’s are things more important than being proficient at a musical instrument.  It’s called chemistry, and this collection of individuals have it!  Perhaps more astounding to me than the buttery guitar solos, the beautifully crafted piano arrangements, or the funky basslines that litter this release, are the utterly astounding vocal harmonies.  The blending of vocal harmonics in this group is stunning, as evidenced in “The Ways Of A Fool” (a personal favorite).  Not just that, but the trade-off of one vocalist after another, such as in “So Far Gone,” allows not only for this concept album to make great strides in character development, but to keep it fresh as well.

I know I’ve gotten a bit sappy, so let me reel things in.  The Neal Morse Band has created a truly delightful release with The Similitude Of A Dream.  While it certainly possesses a Christian message, it is far from preachy and lines up with what I can only imagine so many of us desire ourselves: a little less resistance and a little more encouragement for us to achieve our dreams.  But just like the Journeyman, many of us aren’t on an easy road.  Life is tough, and full of those who would gladly have us fail, or even unintentionally divert us from our goals.  But the message in the music is, to quote Shia LaBeouf, “Don’t let your dreams be dreams.”  The Similitude Of A Dream is out November 11, and I think my recent foray has turned into a journey itself.  I encourage you to take that first step.

 
Buy The Similitude Of A Dream at: Amazon | Radiant Records

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